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The Inner Game of Tennis Summary

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Quick Summary: “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Timothy Gallwey is the book which shifted the focus from the necessity of further mastering your outer game (winning against your opponent) to getting the upper hand in the inner game first (winning against your self). Gallwey explains the psychology behind this shift and offers a few practical advices.

The Inner Game of Tennis Summary

Who Should Read “The Inner Game of Tennis”? And Why?

The Inner Game of Tennis is written by a tennis instructor and, though it uses tennis as a metaphor to talk about other things as well, most of its conclusions and advices would interest tennis players (or athletes, in general) the most.

However, give it a go even if you’re an entrepreneur: it may boost your performance by telling you when you should be a thinker, and when just a doer.

The Inner Game of Tennis Summary

“Every game is composed of two parts,” writes tennis instructor W. Timothy Gallwey, “an outer game and an inner game.”

It is, he goes on, the inner game you need to win so as to have any chance in winning the outer game.

Wondering what that means in practice?

We’re here to explain.

The Outer and the Inner Game of Tennis

The outer game is the one played against an external opponent to overcome external obstacles and to reach an external goal.

If you’re playing the game of tennis, then mastering the outer game means learning how to position your arms and legs, how to swing a racket, or how to improve your forehand. The goal, of course, is to beat your opponent and, in the long run, win Wimbledon.

There are many books which offer instructions on how to achieve this; but, for some reason, reminds as Gallwey, “most of us find these instructions easier to remember than to execute.”

And that’s where the inner game of tennis comes into play.

This is the game that takes place inside the mind of a player. It, too, includes some obstacles: lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt, and self-condemnation. It, too, has a goal: proper preparation for the outer-game instructions.

In short, you play the outer game to beat your opponent; you play the inner one to beat your own self, “to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.”

This book is about the latter.

“There is a far more natural and effective process for learning and doing almost anything than most of us realize,” writes Gallwey in the “Introduction” to his book. “It is similar to the process we all used, but soon forgot, as we learned to walk and talk. It uses the intuitive capabilities of the mind and both the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This process doesn’t have to be learned; we already know it. All that is needed is to unlearn those habits which interfere with it and then to just let it happen.”

Let’s see how that works in actual life.

The Discovery of Two Selves

“Don’t think about elephants,” says Arthur to Saito in Inception to make a point. “What are you thinking about?” “Elephants,” replies Saito.

Called ironic rebound or the white bear problem, this thinking process is a demonstration of the main reason why you might be losing the outer game of tennis (or negotiation, or business, or life) no matter how prepared you are.

Simply put, you are not programmed to play it as consciously as you’d like to believe.

You are, in other words, a stranger to your own self: you think that you are one indivisible individual, when, in fact, you consist of two very different selves:

• Self 1: Your Conscious Mind;
• Self 2: Your Unconscious Mind.

The reason why you are incapable of not thinking about elephants when asked to is that there’s a breakdown in communication between the two selves: Self 1 tells Self 2 to do this, but Self 2 isn’t rational by definition.

And therein lies the problem: using conscious effort to overcome self-doubt or lack of focus and concentration is like using a hammer to paint a wall—the tool is utterly unusable and may, in fact, cause problems rather than lead to proper solutions.

We’ve talked about one real-world basketball example: Nick Anderson.

As Gary Mack reminded us, the guy was a good free throw shooter, scoring, on average, 3 out of four free throws. However, after missing four very important ones, he went from that to scoring only 1 of 4!

Of course, he still had the same skills.

The problem was—as Gladwell so skillfully demonstrated in “The Art of Failure”—that, instead of shooting on autopilot (Self2), Anderson started willing himself (Self 1) to shoot better.

And that’s the very definition of choking.

The Miscommunication Between the Selves

In short, the nub of this problem—choking—is miscommunication and misdelegation of duties between the two selves that comprise you.

But, let’s break down this sentence so you can understand it better.

Self 1 is the smart guy in your body: he is the one that’s doing all the thinking, organizing, strategizing, and analyzing—from every possible angle; he does this in a pretty slow, careful, and meticulous manner.

Self 2, on the other hand, is the doer: he is the one that absorbs all the knowledge when it turns into habit; consequently, Self 2 is much faster.

Self 1, in other words, is copying text from one document, pasting it in another, and clicking Enter afterward—and doing this manually a hundred times; Self 2 is the script that Self 1 quickly jots down to do this automatically.


Well, Self 1 doesn’t want to waste energy solving solved problems a thousand times. There are simply too many problems around, so, after realizing that a particular string of steps works in a particular scenario, it relocates this pattern from the realm of the conscious to the realm of the unconscious, and then Self 2 takes things over and does all the work.

When you choke, this system works backward: Self 1 stops trusting Self 2 to do a job it has done millions of times before immaculately and takes the reins.

So, even though Self 2 embodies all the potential you have developed up to a certain moment—and, thus, is far more competent to control the muscle system than Self 1—Self 1, the slow talker, hijacks your body.

And, when it doesn’t respond properly, starts admonishing it by shouting things like “Stop being so nervous!” “You fool!” etc.

Fortunately, there’s a two-step way out.

Step 1: Quiet Self 1

It is, evidently, “the constant ‘thinking’ activity of Self 1, the ego-mind, which causes interference with the natural capabilities of Self 2. Harmony between the two selves exists when this mind is quiet and focused. Only then can peak performance be reached.”

In other words, you’re “in the zone” when you’re not thinking about how, when, or even where to hit the ball.

When you’re in the zone, you’re not even trying to hit the ball; you just hit it. And, afterward, you’re not thinking about the quality of the shot: you’re just waiting for the next ball.

Like a machine.

“The ball,” says Gallwey, “seems to get hit through a process that doesn’t require thought. There may be an awareness of the sight, sound, and feel of the ball, and even of the tactical situation, but the player just seems to know without thinking what to do.”

“Man is a thinking reed,” wrote Zen master D. T. Suzuki, “but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. ‘Childlikeness’ has to be restored…”

What does this mean?

It means that the first step toward mastery is quieting all thought—and especially judgmental thought—and seeing things as a child would, i.e., not analytically (in the past or the future), but with serenity and relaxation (in the now).

This is what Gallwey calls nonjudgmental awareness.

“When we ‘unlearn’ judgment,” he says, “we discover, usually with some surprise, that we don’t need the motivation of a reformer to change our ‘bad’ habits. We may simply need to be more aware.”

If so, that means that, almost counter-intuitively, if you want to get better at something you’ve been learning your whole life, the best thing to do is to… stop learning.


Step 2: Trust Self 2

Trusting Self 2 means trusting the scripts planted inside your body, i.e., letting things happen.

Letting it happen is not making it happen,” writes Gallwey in the most quotable sentence from the book. “It is not trying hard. It is not controlling your shots.”


Because these are all actions of Self 1, which only takes things into its own hands when it doesn’t trust Self 2 enough.

“This is what produces tight muscles, rigid swings, awkward movements, gritted teeth, and tense cheek muscles,” Gallwey goes on. “The results are mishit balls and a lot of frustration. Often when we are rallying, we trust our bodies and let it happen because the ego-mind tells itself that it doesn’t really count. But once the game begins, watch Self 1 take over; at the crucial point, it starts to doubt whether Self 2 will perform well. The more important the point, the more Self 1 may try to control the shot, and this is exactly when tightening up occurs. The results are almost always frustrating.”

To sum up, nothing good comes out of Self 1 trying to micromanage Self 2: on the contrary, in fact, this is a very certain and definite recipe for disaster.

Self 2 is very good at performing tasks which are automatic, like riding a bike or driving a car. It’s when you start thinking about how complex are the things you are doing that you may make a mistake.

A great tactic to prevent yourself from this is visualizing yourself on the court long before the match begins: to Self 2, a picture is worth a thousand words.

A good rule of thumb is until you get it right in your head, your Self 1 won’t trust your Self 2.

So, don’t stop visualizing until you do!

Key Lessons from “The Inner Game of Tennis”

1.      You Consist Of Two Selves: The Conscious and the Unconscious You
2.      Choking is the Product of Miscommunication Between the Two Selves
3.      To Get Better: Quiet Self 1 and Trust Self 2 More

You Consist Of Two Selves: The Conscious and the Unconscious You

He may have been wrong about many things,  but Sigmund Freud was definitely right about one: people are not whole and complete beings, but pretty fragmented creatures.

There’s a contest inside our bodies, and tennis instructor W. Timothy Gallwey refers to this contest as the inner game of tennis: before you’re capable of beating your opponent, you need to find a way to beat yourself.

Or better yet: to balance the two selves that are inside you.

The first one is the conscious self: the thinking entity; the latter one is the unconscious self: the doing entity. It is Self 1 which comes up with solutions; it is Self 2 which puts them into practice.

Choking is the Product of Miscommunication Between the Two Selves

Choking is the result of miscommunication between these two selves: Self 1 takes over things that are in the domain of Self 2 believing that it will make them better—when, in truth, Self 2 does a pretty great job only when not interfered.

Fortunately, there’s a way to prevent this; but it’s counter-intuitive.

To Get Better: Quiet Self 1 and Trust Self 2 More

It is only normal that the first thing you’d do when things start to go awry is you activate Self 1: it is the smart part of you, so it should have a solution.

Unfortunately, in this case, Self 1 is actually the problem: you don’t need to think when you’re driving or riding a bike, and, just as well, you don’t need to think when you’re shooting free throws or playing tennis.

You just need to do stuff.

Well, Self 1 isn’t very good at doing things: it doesn’t know your body as well as Self 2 does. So, you need to quiet it down by reserving all judgment and becoming aware that your inner mechanism is being hacked.

Step 2 is the other side of the coin: let things go. Just trust your Self 2 more and let it make all the decisions on autopilot.

If that backhand shot has worked out well 9 out of 10 times in practice, you have nothing to worry about it anymore.

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The Inner Game of Tennis Quotes

When the mind is free of any thought or judgment, it is still and acts like a mirror. Then and only then can we know things as they are. Click To Tweet The ability to focus the mind is the ability to not let it run away with you. It does not mean not to think—but to be the one who directs your own thinking. Click To Tweet Not assuming you already know is a powerful principle of focus. Click To Tweet Fortunately, most children learn to walk before they can be told how to by their parents. Click To Tweet Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning to focus it. Click To Tweet

Final Notes

As we said above, despite its subtitle (“The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance”), The Inner Game of Tennis is primarily about tennis players. We tried to make its conclusions more general in our summary, but it is fairly obvious that tennis players (and athletes) would profit from this book much more than any other group of people.

Even so, the book is fairly short and comprehensible, and if you take the game of tennis as a metaphor and rush through some of the more tennis-specific suggestions and instructions, we guarantee you that you won’t be losing your time.After all, Timothy Gallwey “found himself lecturing more often to business leaders than to sports people”—so there’s that.

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